BACK OF THE HOUSE: Nick & Toni’s

nick_tonis

The East Hampton landmark that championed local cuisine before the rest of the region.

On a seductively lazy Saturday afternoon as only the South Fork can be in August, who was behind the counter at the Townline BBQ in Sagaponack, filling take-out orders for ribs, potato salad and spicy fresh pickles, but Joe Realmuto, executive chef of Nick & Toni’s restaurant.

It’s actually no surprise seeing Realmuto tweaking the smokers or collard greens at Townline. Having entered Nick & Toni’s kitchen 18 years ago at age 21, Realmuto oversees the food at Nick & Toni’s, as well as at sister restaurants Townline BBQ, La Fondita and Nick & Toni’s Café in the city. And when he’s not cooking or popping up beside Ina Garten on the Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa, he’s channeling a devotion to community that was a founding principle of Nick & Toni’s.

You’ll see him, alongside other restaurant staff, ladling out soup from steaming cauldrons at the Springs Firehouse to benefit the edible schoolyard he helped launch at Springs school, making emergency runs of sandwiches to a local school where students were going without lunch, pressing palms with growers at the Friday morning farmers’ market hosted in Nick & Toni’s North Main Street parking lot, and leading a dozen and a half farmdeprived children from New York City through harvesting, chopping and paring vegetables—faces shining and eyes dancing—for for the meal that followed.

Much newsprint allotted this restaurant focuses on high-profile personalities diners may spot. Ruth Reichl wound up her 1994 New York Times review of the restaurant, which she awarded two stars, with the lines, ” Heads turn each time the door opens. Did you see who just came in? Just another night at the beach. Nick and Toni’s.” Admittedly, even on a mellow night in late September, bar regulars glance up from their farm-stand cocktails and salami-pecorino amuse-bouches every time the door opens. From its opening 22 years ago, artists, literary folk, financiers and other luminaries have gravitated to this Hamptons’ institution for its casual comfort food and comfortable, almost family, restaurant setting—even those who typically dodge paparazzi. And they still come, long past the popularity peak allotted most restaurants.

When Toni Ross and her husband, Jeff (affectionately called “Nick”), who met at a stone quarry in Carrera while studying art in Italy, decided to open a restaurant serving the simple Tuscan food they’d come to love, the East End had nothing like bread dipped in olive oil, which was only then starting to catch on in the city. Toni’s father, entertainment giant Steve Ross, then chairman of Time Warner, triggered what has become an enduring three month gastronomic season in this resort community by entertaining there. Soon it was the charismatic Salaway, who had managed new-wave New York City eateries like Jonathan Waxman’s Jams, charming diners in his “mom-and-pop” restaurant, while Toni made stunning desserts. Salaway tragically died in 2001. “The famous came because they felt comfortable with the way they were treated—or not treated—in terms of being able to come in for dinner like quote, unquote, normal people,” says Mark Smith, managing partner of the restaurant since 1995. “The legend grows and people want to find out what this whole Nick & Toni’s thing is about.”

And they came for the food, of course. There were zucchini chips—rounds of squash, shaved thin and deep-fried—still a staple on the menu, alongside other opening-day standbys like penne alla vecchia bettola with spicy oven-roasted tomato sauce, boneless roasted free-range chicken with crushed Yukon gold potatoes, roasted garlic, house-cured pancetta and rosemary jus, and an evening-capping vin santo with biscotti. There were new-American flairs, like a calamari with ponzu from the early days that Realmuto says customers still ask for. “It’s all Italian-inspired,” he says. Even today, the dishes ooze with flavors of the Old Country—what city chefs like Marco Canore of Hearth and Frank DeCarlo of Peasant call cucina povera, or peasant food—pancetta, panzanella, marmelata, homemade mozzarella, whole grilled fish. A shelf of grappa hangs near the bar.

From its earliest days, Nick & Toni’s focused on what is today among the most celebrated ingredients you can buy: local produce. And the restaurant was one of the first to hype it on its menus. Nearly 20 years ago, Salaway enlisted Quail Hill Farm’s director Scott Chaskey to plant the half-acre organic garden that borders the end of the parking lot. “He made a lot of things happen,” says Chaskey, who recalls Salaway’s unbridled enthusiasm for this seemingly extraneous, but very forward-thinking, arm of the restaurant, purchasing a beekeeper suit and relishing a turn at the rototiller. “The garden was really his baby.” And it eventually grew to become a significant, if small, source of garnish and other accents. “The first year it was three-quarters tomatillos,” says Realmuto, who as a 20-something chef wasn’t sure what to make of the garden. “Don’t ask me why. We had no use for tomatillos back then. But we did have a lot of tomatillo fights!”

This year Realmuto decided to plant an additional quarter acre, mostly with asparagus destined for the charcoal grill. When you ask him about his favorite dishes, he talks instead about his favorite equipment. There is the kitchen’s 1,800-pound charcoal grill lit daily at 5 p.m., and the wood-burning stove in the front room with its mosaic that artist Eric Fischl crafted from pieces of the restaurant’s early imported Italian dishes.

“When you cook on a wood-burning grill, the flavor changes tremendously,” says Realmuto. “Grilling asparagus on that is just incredible. It brings a whole different element to what we do.” He reels off a tantalizing harvest of vegetables cooked over charcoal and wood: fingerlings, squashes, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, asparagus, beets, parsnips. “They get this nice smoky flavor when they get charred,” says Realmuto. “They caramelize, and it changes the sugars, brings out a lot of flavor.” His pizzas feature braised leeks, spinach and sweet onions, and there is a possibility of a whole local sea bass or fluke roasted in the wood oven, not to mention a pork chop glistening deep-chestnut over the intense heat of a glowing bed of hardwood coals.

Everything is homemade, simple. There are seldom more than three ingredients on a plate. The menu usually changes three times a month depending upon what is in season locally, reflecting Realmuto’s love affair with regional. He mashes up Italian heritage and East End cuisine, when he creates porcini crusted monkfish or the braised duck ragu or fluke crudo with local radishes. He stalks quality and freshness and growers know it. The farmers’ market held in Nick and Toni’s parking lot on Friday mornings gives not only the kitchen staff, but chefs from other restaurants and savvy consumers, a chance to browse the freshest possible produce, just as their brethren do at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket. And when his farmers run out of Tuscan kale for his tomato-braised kale dish, Realmuto moves to the next season. “When it’s gone,” he says, “we’ll find out whatever someone else has local and we’ll switch it in.”

The resort season is the core of the year, though later weekends still swing. “It certainly is a crazy existence operating a business out here,” says Smith. “We build up to this whole 90- to 100-day period, and then spend the next nine months building up to the next season.” Since Salaway’s death, Nick & Toni’s has become part of a group of restaurants that includes Rowdy Hall, La Fondita and Townline BBQ run by Smith. Toni Ross is a hands-off owner of Nick & Toni’s and Nick & Toni’s Café in the city and has devoted her time to other projects including the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Hayground School, both of which she helped found with her late husband. Smith manages the group with Christy Cober, the director of operations and a long-time Salaway alum, who along with Realmuto is co-owner of Townline. “We’re building a company where people want to stay year-round and we work really hard to keep them and not treat them like summer help,” says Smith, adding, “It’s the right thing to do. They have insurance, two weeks off, two days off in a row. We try to give them the same respect that they would get if they were a teacher or a police officer or working for a corporation. It’s not just about the revenue.”

General manager Bonnie Munshin, who had managed An American Place in Manhattan for Larry Forgione in the 1980s, joined Nick & Toni’s in 1992 and became the public face of the restaurant after Salaway’s death. She coordinates reservations, seating and the front of the house staff, not to mention the mood of the patrons. She knows instinctively where to put the right people together “so that everyone has the experience they want.” Munshin, a former dancer on the Ed Sullivan show and wife of the late actor Jules Munshin, likens the juggling of seating and reservations, especially during the harried months, to air traffic control up-island. “It’s like being the person who brings the planes in at JFK, controlling the flow and the runways. You can have a plan, but it never plays out because there’s too much of an element of theater and spontaneity.”

It’s an environment that has propelled many former staff into food-related professions. The restaurant’s original chef, Gayle Arnold, remains prominent in the private chef circuit. Arnold was replaced by Paul Del Favero, now Bobby Flay’s head chef at Mesa Grill at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Onetime sous-chef under Realmuto, Jason Weiner launched and is the chef of Almond restaurants in Bridgehampton and New York City, as well as a related venture on Fire Island, while another chef in Realmuto’s kitchen, John Delucie, moved on to head up the incredibly popular Waverly Inn in Manhattan. Chef Bryan Futerman left Nick & Toni’s to start healthy pizza shop Foody’s in Water Mill. Once-waiter David Loewenburg went on to open Beacon in Sag Harbor, Fresno in East Hampton, and Red Bar Brasserie in Southampton. And original Nick & Toni bartender Steve Haweeli founded Wordhampton Public Relations, which now represents many of the food and drink businesses on the East End.

Bartender John Franciscovich, now general manager of Montauk’s Second House Tavern, says of the institution Salaway set in motion, “To think that if I can have a little piece of what he did, if I can do it at a fraction, then I can hold my head up.”

That legacy also includes a commitment to staying open year round, when both produce, and customers, might be out of season. “A lot of restaurants offer their regular menus as a prix fixe and cut the portions down,” muses Smith. Instead of promoting its usual menus at discounts, last year Realmuto offered a complicated, rotating series of regional menus not only from Italy, but from Spain, France and Greece “to expose our customers and chefs to new dishes,” he says.

While scoring a four-top at 7 p.m. in August is a certain type of impossibility—Munshin advises those without reservations to come early and sample the full menu from the bar—regulars know that the off-season is the time to get to know Nick & Toni’s. Every Thursday night, children are welcomed into the kitchen to make the pizza for their families. And there’s the ever popular $30 Film and Food: a choice of soup or salad (Caesar or mixed), and any of the pizzas or pastas from the menu, plus a movie voucher that can be redeemed at any time. Their relatively new beer list features New York craft options from Ommegang, Brooklyn Brewery, Southampton Publick House and Fire Island. If you want to be more traditional, dip an almond biscotti into the Italian dessert wine and think how comfortable it will taste in the quieter months ahead.

Nick & Toni’s, 136 North Main Street, East Hampton 631.324.3550

Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk where she is completing a book about flavor.

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Geraldine Pluenneke

Geraldine Pluenneke has written for Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and other publications, and is writing a book on recovering America’s lost flavors and nutrients. She is hooked on Eli’s Health Loaf, toasted and thickly spread with chèvre.